CLOC Musical Theatre makes a spectacular return to the stage, bringing out the full spectrum of heartfelt humanity in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
While Priscilla herself is a star attraction that would be well beyond the resources of many theatre companies, the true achievement here, beyond the eye-popping glamour and technical wizardry, is the lashings of heart and soul in the performances and storytelling.
Anchoring the memorable, affecting performances is the sterling work of venerable thespian Lee Threadgold, whose portrayal of Bernadette is one for the ages. Emotionally raw and yet deliciously polished, Threadgold commands the stage, giving dear Bernadette all the elegance of a former Les Girls star and all the backbone of an ever-enduring battler. With Bernadette crucial to the arcs of each key character, Threadgold conveys ready warmth and chemistry with his co-stars, particularly nailing key moments with tearaway Felicia and downtrodden Bob.
Co-directors Lynette White and Chris White have neatly balanced spectacle and intimacy, infusing the full company with a joy that emanates readily to the delighted audience.
Full credit to Chris White and technical director Grant Alley for the achievement in creating Priscilla herself, crafting a full size, rotating bus with spinning tyres, full lights and decadent interior.
Chris White’s set design utilises a pair of mobile stairs and full width walkway, which are used to terrific effect by choreographer Lynette White to create a stage full of vividly animated imagery well beyond what would have been possible with just a flat stage. The tightly rehearsed choreography is a pleasure to watch, especially given the frequent inclusion of multiple aspects of routines occurring simultaneously about the stage. There is a sense that one could attend the show again and watch a whole other set of performances.
The visual variety is further enhanced by Victoria Horne’s absolutely incredible costumes, which are worth the price of admission alone. Never one to shy from a sequin, Horne has outdone herself with the extraordinary cavalcade of costumes. Headpieces are a particular highlight, beautifully complemented by pristine wigs and hairstyles by David Wisken. Riffing on the iconic designs of the professional version of Priscilla, Horne has put her own glossy spin on cupcakes and paint brushes, showgirls and camp funeral attire. Again, there is so much to see that a second viewing is almost mandatory.
Completely out of sight, musical director Andy McCalman leads a rocking band of nine musicians, bringing the beloved tunes of the jukebox score to vibrant life.
Lighting designer Brad Alcock paints the performance space with ribbons of richly coloured light. Marcello Lo Ricco’s sound design is reliably pristine; all those zingy one-liners and fresh chorus harmonies are heard with peak clarity.
Choreography and vocals benefit from the generous cast size, which is larger than that seen in professional seasons of Priscilla. Ensemble members raise the stage energy with every entrance, expertly switching from drag queens to outback hicks and back again.
Angel Dolejší gives Tick a natural, down-to-earth vibe, showing that performing in drag does not have to translate to 24/7 excess. At this performance, the role of Tick’s son Benji was played by Thomas Smithers, who displayed nicely understated confidence and a sweet singing voice. Dolejší and Smithers displayed warm father-son chemistry, bringing the key reason for the long journey to Alice Springs to a satisfying conclusion.
Daniel Baker vivaciously captures the full surface bitchiness of emerging drag artist Felicia, gaining audience affection by also conveying the vulnerability beneath the young man’s brash outer shield.
Andrew Roberts provides a complete contrast to the glamorous passengers of Priscilla in his role as outback everyman Bob. The romance between Bob and Bernadette is one of musical theatre’s most surprising, all the more delightful for its organic, late-in-life development. Roberts and Threadgold enjoy a ready charm, their natural portrayals making the love story all the more authentic.
Hayley Nissen, Nadia Gianinotti and Carolyn Bruce are the goddesses known as the Divas, singing up an almighty storm and strutting about with self-assured camp authority. Bruce, in particular, delivers killer vocals in “I Will Survive.”
In a wise move for the woke contingent, CLOC has placed a paragraph in the program about the language and cultural stereotypes in Priscilla. The suggestion to take the chance to reflect how far we have come since the original movie was released in 1994 is sage advice indeed.
Matty Mills is terrific as Jimmy, playing up the character’s tourist trap portrayal of his aboriginal culture and heritage with a knowing wink.
Elise Stevens is an extraordinarily good sport in the featured role of bigoted bar manager Shirley, letting it all hang out in the name of her art. Jasmine Kwan portrays maniacal mail-order bride Cynthia with infectious glee. Johnathon White kickstarts the show in sultry fashion as Sydney drag diva Miss Understanding.
Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is a celebration of all that we have been missing without live theatre for the past year. Presuming that a handful of tickets remain, attendance is heartily recommended.
Photos: Ben Fon